3 Telltale Signs You’re Being Greenwashed

Back in the 1980s, notorious oil company Chevron put out a series of ads designed to distract from its dubious sustainability record and convince the public that it was, in fact, pro-environment. While the commercials were very effective advertising (they won an Effie award), they also became a hot topic among environmentalists, who have dubbed them among the worst of greenwashing.

It’s not uncommon for massive corporations like Chevron, BP or Nestle to “greenwash” their businesses in order to make them appear more environmentally responsible than they actually are. Sometimes it’s apparent — a slick, expensive ad that pops up in the face of some public relations scandal; sometimes it’s a little more subtle — overblown claims on the side of a plastic disposable water bottle.

Here are three telltale signs you’re being greenwashed.

#1: Misinformation

The most common greenwashing strategy, according to Greenpeace’s Stop Greenwash group, is when a company promotes an environmental product or program while its core business is inherently polluting or unsustainable. A great example of this is bottled water.

Bottle water companies rely heavily on images of pristine mountain lakes to sell their products. At the same time, only 31 percent of plastic water bottles end up getting recycled, which means that this so called “most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world” is actually sending millions of tons of garbage to landfill (or the ocean) every year. Gross.

#2: Misdirection

This greenwashing strategy is intended to shift customer focus from destructive behavior to something that’s much more peripheral. Many would call this propaganda. It often shows up in the face of scandal.

oil rig in the ocean

Remember the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill? BP immediately turned to green advertising to ward off critique. And you know what? It worked. According to this Harvard Business Review case study, customers temporarily “punished” BP immediately following the spill, but let them off the hook once those advertisements started airing.

#3: Misrepresentation

This last form of greenwashing is a little bit more subtle. It’s not uncommon for companies with an iffy environmental track record to brag about sustainable changes when, in reality, those changes were mandated by law.

If an industry or specific company has been forced to change its practices, clean up an area of business or act on behalf of an endangered species, for example, they may try to pass it off as proactive — their idea.

Does this make you uncomfortable?

The best way to guard against greenwashing is to be informed. Look beyond advertising claims — way beyond — and educate yourself on which practices are sustainable and which aren’t. In the meantime, here are a few resources and contacts who are already looking out for greenwashing:

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